Washington -- U.S. forces are mopping up the remnants of Saddam Hussein's loyalists and Iraq is now under the effective control of a retired U.S. general, presenting a unique opportunity for hundreds of evangelical Christians to proselytize in the Muslim country.
Samaritan's Purse, an aid group founded by Rev. Franklin Graham, Billy Graham's son, has volunteers in Jordan preparing to go into Iraq.
The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, also has missionaries ready. Atlanta-based In Touch Ministries , which until now had its message carried to Iraq by scratchy shortwave radio, is looking to upgrade to television.
All of these groups had been prevented from working freely in Iraq by Saddam's government, which abandoned its secular roots and embraced ever more fervent Islam as a way of ingratiating itself with the country's predominantly Muslim population.
But the rush to proselytize is provoking concern among many Muslims because of past anti-Islamic statements by many evangelical leaders.
Mr. Graham, who gave the invocation at the inauguration of George W. Bush, the U.S. President, has called Islam "a violent and wicked religion." He is personally close to the President, who was helped by Mr. Graham's father to become a born-again Christian.
The evangelical leader is scheduled to give the Good Friday sermon tomorrow at the Pentagon, spur- ring protests from Muslim workers who had asked for a less divisive speaker. The Pentagon refused to withdraw the invitation.
Jerry Vines, former president of the Southern Baptists, has denounced Muhammad, the founder of Islam, as "a demon-possessed pedophile who had 12 wives."
Such statements come amidst a growing movement among U.S. evangelicals to convert Muslims.
In Touch Ministries calls the Middle East the "10/40 Window," referring to the area between 10 and 40 degrees north of the equator, which "houses the majority of the world's people who have not heard the Gospel of Jesus Christ in their language."
A group called Center for Ministry to Muslims has set up training programs at seminaries across the United States and in dozens of other countries, preparing more than 20,000 missionaries for work in Islamic countries.
"God is not willing that Muslims, the descendants of Ishmael, should be without an adequate witness to the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ," says the CMM mission statement.
Mr. Graham insists Samaritan's Purse is not simply going to convert Iraqis. His organization spends more than US$100-million a year helping poor people around the world, and in an article for the Los Angeles Times, he said Iraqis need similar help.
"In Iraq, as is the case wherever we work, Samaritan's Purse will offer physical assistance to those who need it, with no strings attached," he wrote.
"We don't have to preach in order to be a Christian relief organization. Sometimes the best preaching we can do is simply being there with a cup of cold water, exhibiting Christ's spirit of serving others."
That is a problem for such organizations as the Council on American-Islamic Relations, which worries Iraqis will be unfairly swayed by aid givers.
"We have no problem with people going into a country to do evangelical work," said Hodan Hassan, a spokeswoman for CAIR. "But when you mix humanitarian work in a wartorn country with evangelization you create a problem. You have desperate people and you have someone who has food in one hand and a Bible in another."
Mr. Graham told Beliefnet, a religious Web site, "We realize we're in an Arab country and we just can't go out and preach."
However, he added, "I believe as we work, God will always give us opportunities to tell others about his Son.... We are there to reach out to love them and to save them, and as a Christian I do this in the name of Jesus Christ."
So far, the U.S. government has not indicated whether evangelical groups are welcome in Iraq. With the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime, there is no visa-issuing authority and the decision on who is allowed into Iraq rests with the United States.
Skeptics worry the evangelical groups, no matter how worthy their goals, will inflame tensions in Iraq by convincing many Muslims the United States waged war in order to convert them to Christianity.
There are also fears that the country's 750,000 Christians, most of whom belong to ancient churches dating from the days of the apostles, could be endangered if they are lumped together with the missionaries.
"The perception that the United States is engaged in a war on Islam itself can only be worsened if our troops are followed into Iraq by a horde of Christian soldiers who view conversion as part of their human relief effort," the Seattle Post-Intelligencer said in a recent editorial.
"The U.S. government is constitutionally bound to neither abet the establishment of religion nor restrict its free exercise, so it cannot legitimately support or ban evangelical efforts in Iraq. It falls to the leaders of these organizations to exercise restraint."
Deciding just what to do poses a prickly challenge for the White House.
If Iraqis see U.S. troops as part of an effort to convert them, plans to stabilize and democratize Iraq could be jeopardized.
But if the administration tries to prevent evangelical groups from travelling to Iraq, it could alienate some of Mr. Bush's most ardent supporters, people who will be vital in next year's re-election battle.
"There is no way for the U.S. to formally stop them," said Amy Hawthorne, a Middle East specialist with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"It really depends how they conduct themselves. There are religiously based humanitarian groups that do useful work throughout the developing world. But if there is even a hint of proselytizing, it will be very negatively received."